Thursday, August 31, 2017

59 (2017-2018): Review: CHAROLAIS (seen August 30, 2017)

“No Udder Love”

Charolais, Irish writer-actress Noni Stapleton’s one-woman black comedy now at 59E59’s tiny Theater C, begins with a grim image: the beefy Stapleton herself standing behind a small table in a blood-smeared butcher’s apron (costumes by Miriam Duffy) and rubber boots with a large, bloody knife in hand, her huge belly indicating a new life on its way. Her words, though, which allude to Temple Grandin without naming her, talk of a relatively benign way of killing animals. Thus begins this darkly comic, 65-minute monologue of sex, jealousy, childbirth, and death amidst the human and bovine residents of a hardscrabble Irish farm. 

Noni Stapleton. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Charolais, in case you’re wondering, is an important breed of cattle originating in France, and Jimmy and his ma, Breda, have one on their farm. The not-too-bright, Siobhan, a “townie,” has been employed by Jimmy to register his cattle as part of a course she’s taking. But she’s got a thing for country hunks and, quickly enough, she lusts for, sleeps with, and gets pregnant by Jimmy. However, she has two big obstacles to overcome: one is Jimmy’s widowed, gammy-eyed, nasty-mouthed mother, from whom the affair is hidden; the other’s an artificially inseminated, pregnant Charolais cow she calls by that name and, even while thinking to name her baby Charolais, becomes intensely jealous because Jimmy seems to love it more than he does her.
Noni Stapleton. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Siobhan’s profanely salted narrative recounts the details of her sexual/romantic relationship with Jimmy (which began when she came across him “leanin against a bail [sic] having a wank” and telling him, “I’ll do that for ya if you want”). She reveals the tensions between her and Jimmy’s demanding, disapproving mother, especially regarding the forthcoming blessed event, reveals the seriousness of cattle-related disease to struggling farmers, and describes the variously clever homicidal ways she contemplates to resolve her personal issues before a gory tragicomic conclusion handles the matter for her.
Noni Stapleton. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Meanwhile, the story is occasionally interrupted by whimsically offbeat (too much so, for my taste) scenes that begin with Siobhan removing her ponytail band and letting her blond hair flop free from side to side, giving her a slight resemblance to a zaftig Meryl Streep. She then switches to livestock mode, moo-ving about and speaking in the caricaturish, smoky-voiced accent of a sensual French chanteuse and singing snatches of “La Vie en Rose” as she fantasizes about bullish amour.
Noni Stapleton. Photo: Hunter Canning.
A few pieces of furniture within the black box space are sufficient unto Charolais’s needs, with nicely varied lighting by Tara Doolan and barnyard sound design by Jack Cawley.  Produced by the Irish touring company Fishamble and well-directed by Bairbre Ní Chaiomh, this award-winning, widely-toured play stands out mainly for Stapleton’s striking performance as she navigates the humorous and serious peaks and valleys of this rural terrain, a place where everyone speaks in such bog-thick accents you can literally see the mud dripping off their vowels. Stapleton, addressing the audience directly, remains completely invested in her dramatic world, able to shift effortlessly between honest sadness, playful horror, and erotic desire, heaving her heifer’s heftiness about with polished grace.
Charolais is minor writing, more hamburger than steak, but Stapleton’s acting puts it on an udder level entirely.


59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through September 24